Partnership of Drug-Free America, in 1987 coined that phrase and threw an egg in a pan, cooked it up and I thought about breakfast. I knew at that time that drugs were “bad”, but I didn’t know really how bad they were, I was too young to really grasp the concept. Although some people might look back and laugh at that PSA, it’s pretty clear that you can end up “cooked” after using too much. Plenty of stoners out there have said that they are “fried.” But after years of diligent research, they (being neurologists) have really found out that the old 1987 phrase is pretty accurate. Some interesting things about the teenage brain have emerged.. and the impact of drugs on it. Below are a few highlights.

The Teenage Brain Is More Susceptible To Problematic Behaviors Becoming Wired

For those of us who remember being a teenager, or are a teenager, this was a really difficult time. The brain is really doing a lot of work here too. The – okay this is where it’s gonna get confusing- Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) and the Nucleus Accumbens are responsible for pleasure-seeking behavior. When a teen is at their best, they are all about reward and really spend no time thinking about risk. Why do they do that? Because of this area, it releases dopamine when someone thinks about a pleasurable activity… I don’t even have to eat the ice cream and I am taken over (my boss prefers chips). This is no joke, when the brain releases dopamine it’s like a high, it drives the person biologically to seek out the thing that they will get pleasure from. Putting one and two together, the more a person engages in this pleasure-seeking behavior, the better the association becomes and the more it is difficult to regulate or manage. And the neurons in the adolescent brain are much faster than an adult brain, meaning when they are thinking about getting high, they don’t have the ability to stop and think, “this is my brain on drugs, don’t use drugs.” In fact when this pattern gets going, it hardwires into the system during the growth of the brain. I just got an image of ice cream obsessed zombies.

The TeenĀ Brain Is Undergoing “Pruning”

So when I first heard of this thing called “pruning” I thought, “Crap! It’s getting rid of stuff?! That doesn’t sound good!” But when I understood it, I was corrected, actually pruning is a really good thing. All the useless junk gets thrown out that had been sitting around taking up space on the hard drive and the useful pathways and patterns stay. However, let’s be clear though, these “useful” pathways are not always useful. They are just used a lot! So if a teenager is using and they keep using, the patterns stick and get hard wired in. I caution that this does not mean that these patterns cannot change, because they can, it’s just really hard to change later. Neurologists have also found that smoking weed even for a short period of time can cause a reduction in myelination (a process where neurons are insulated so they can run faster and more efficiently) and can also have longer-lasting effects on IQ and Verbal IQ. All things that we would not want for teens.

TeensĀ Have No Front Brain

Okay, I’m kidding here, they do have frontal lobes (areas responsible for impulse control and reasoning), but they just can’t connect to them sometimes. They use the frontal lobes for day to day things, but they really struggle to use it when they are upset. This is why they become so intense when they are upset. There is little link between the emotional area of the brain and the frontal lobes which regulate emotions and allow people to reason their way out of a fistfight. As we age we end up with a stronger connection to our frontal lobes. So when an adolescent is using, this connection becomes even more disjointed, especially with all the other information noted above.

So summing all of this up. Using for teens is a really bad idea, it wires in, causes malfunctions and makes managing emotions, recovery and interpersonal relationships difficult. This also tells us that when teens are begging their way into things they realllllllly want it, it’s the job of the adult to assist them in using their frontal lobes. Helping teens manage those intense feelings and learning impulse control is what we want them to be able to do later in life, so the next time you hear “c’mon!” or receive threats of defiance, know that saying no is the best thing to do.

For anyone interested in reading additional information about teens and their growing brains, pick up this book! It’s a great book.

The Teenage Brain